Category Archives: life

How I Teach My Five-Year-Old Daughter STEM

I was playing a series of games with my daughter this morning, when she said, “Dada, do you wanna play inventions?”

She’s said something like this to me before, and it usually turns into a drawing/coloring session where she intends to draw some invention-idea that she has, but where as often as not, she forgets why we sat down to draw and instead just makes some kind of weird pattern.

I wanted to sit on the couch and watch the Bills game anyway, and we usually draw and color in front of the TV (thought usually not with it on), so yeah, why not? We still had some time to kill before the game though, so instead of just saying yes, I asked her what she wanted to invent.

Then I stopped her before she could answer. We were sitting on the floor in her recently cleaned and rearranged play room, the sun was coming in the windows, and her mother was doing something quiet upstairs. The moment felt right for an actual conversation, so before she could spit out some weird invention, I told her that inventions usually solve some kind of problem, so before she thinks of her invention, she should think of what problem she wanted to solve.

That stopped her. Her eyes looked down at the rug and her forehead crinkled, her brain trying to locate the problem for whatever invention she was just about to tell me. We were playing Connect Four at the time, so I remained quiet and let her ruminate on it while we played back and forth, then she said, “I want to be inside the TV.”

Now, like a lot of kids, my daughter loves television. If given the chance, she would sit on the couch all day and watch television. She loves other things too, but she loves TV most of all. I mean, she is our daughter.

Over the next several minutes, I tried to figure out exactly what she meant and what exactly she wanted to achieve. If I was going to help her invent something, I had to make sure I understood its real purpose.

My daughter had recently been introduced to video games. Over Christmas, while at her cousins’ house, she played Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch. Prior to that, her experience with video games was limited to relatively poorly developed children’s games on my iPad. She had no real idea that the world of video games included experiences like playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on a giant television screen. She knew console games existed (she’s watched me play various games on my XBox), but she’d never taken control of one.

I’m proud to say that she took to it rather well, and by the end of the day, she was competitive enough to go against some of the adults in the house. She hadn’t played since we returned from Chicago, but two of our friends visit with their Switch this weekend, and they had Mario Kart, so we let her play. While she didn’t win a single race, she could hold her own against the computer.

When she said she wanted to invent a machine that lets her go into the television, I wanted to figure out whether she meant she wanted to be part of a video game or be a part of a movie or TV show.

I said, “Come check this out,” and we got up and went into the living room. I brought out my laptop and showed her a commercial for the Oculus Rift, which if you don’t know, is the world’s first consumer-level virtual reality machine. We talked a little more after she watched it, and it came out that, no, she didn’t mean being in a virtual reality. She wanted to go into the TV.

I paused a moment. She couldn’t really think…

“Hey,” I said. “Go look behind the TV.” She did as I asked. After she’d looked the equipment up and down, I asked, “Do you think you could fit inside there?”

She thought for a moment, and shook her head. “No, I’d have to shrink.”

At this point, the football game was coming on, so I pulled her onto the couch with me and we cuddled under a blanket to watch the game. After a little while, I took out my iPhone, turned on the selfie camera, and held it up to her face. “Are you on TV now?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Not like that.”

“But that’s how people get on the TV. The football game isn’t inside the television. All we’re seeing on the TV is moving light.” Something moved in her face.

Months ago, my daughter and I had a long, multi-location conversation about how animation works. That conversation not only led us to creating a bunch of flip-style animations, but it also included a long diatribe about how everything on TV is just an animation, a series of moving pictures created by ever-changing colored lights, each color on and off in a pattern that tricks our brains into seeing something that isn’t there. (This same conversation contained a diatribe that  explained how the movies she watches on Netflix are really just a series of information packets sent to our house through wires over our streets and reconfigured by the television).

As we sat on the couch and I said “moving light,” I saw her mind go back to this conversation, and I continued, “Where this football game is taking place, there’s someone pointing a camera onto the football field, and that picture of the game is sent over the wires to show up here. Just like you’re not in the iPhone when you see yourself in the screen, they’re not in the television.”

She got quiet, and we went back to watching the game.

A little while later, she said, “I want to meet the people on the TV.”

Okay, I thought, we’re getting a little closer.

One of the TV shows that my daughter is obsessed with is Disney’s Descendants. You might not know about it if you don’t have a young daughter (I only assume it’s a daughter thing because the only people I’ve seen get excited about this show are daughters, and that includes daughters ranging in age from five to thirteen years old).

When I heard about the concept for the show, I thought it sounded pretty cool. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Beast and the Fairy Godmother, all of the wicked villains of the Disney universe have been confined to an island that is protected by a magical shield; essentially, they’ve been sent to a combination of Alcatraz and the island from Lord of the Flies. They’re free to do whatever they want, as long as they stay on their island (and the Fairy Godmother and the Beast have banished them there forever).

But that’s just the prologue. The real story takes place a generation later, when all of the heroes and villains you know now have children. When the son of the Beast and Belle receives the crown to the Kingdom due to some unexplained law of royal succession where a middle-aged King willingly gives up his crown to his still-coming-of-age Prince, the new King decides that the sins of the mothers and fathers shouldn’t be held against their children, and in a very moderate but still progressive manner, he allows four (and yet only four) children from the island join the rarified prep school that he and his friends attend.

I’m not going to get into the plot machinations of the story (there are two movies and several shorts, not to mention a warehouse full of merchandise and at least two full-length soundtracks), but the long and short of it is that my daughter loves it.

When she said she wanted to meet the people on the TV, I knew that the characters on Descendants were at least some of the people she wanted to meet.

At which point I told her that just like someone was holding a camera up to the football field, someone was holding a camera up while the people on Descendants did their thing. I told her that while she watched Descendants on television, the people she watched were probably on their own couches watching something else. “It’s just a video,” I said. “It’s not really happening when you watch it.”

I asked her who she wanted to meet the most, and she said, “Evie.” Evie is the daughter of the Evil Queen, the woman who wanted to poison Snow White for being too beautiful. Now in high school, Evie is a gifted fashion designer who benefits from the magic in her mother’s mirror (in this generation, the magic mirror fits comfortably in a pocket and Evie sometimes uses it to cheat on her tests).

“Okay,” I said, “But Evie isn’t Evie.” I opened up the IMDB app and showed her the page for Descendants. I clicked on the actress who plays Evie, and I said, “Look, her name is Sophia Carson. She’s been in other movies too. Look at all these pictures of her pretending to be other people when she isn’t pretending to be Evie.”

My daughter scrolled through the pictures a little bit. I know this sounds like I was destroying the wonderful illusion of Disney for my little girl, but she didn’t seem disappointed in the least. She seemed fascinated.

I showed her how to use the IMDB app, and then let her look through all the pictures of the various actors while I cuddled behind her and watched the football game.

At some point, she turned to me and asked, “So which Evie got my money?”

I didn’t expect that question.

The night before, when we had friends over and she was playing Mario Kart and being social and just having a wonderful time, we had to trick her into getting into her pajamas (doing it directly wouldn’t have been worth the hassle). We told her that we were going to have a contest, where she would go upstairs and put on her own pajamas, and we would stay downstairs and guess which pajamas she would put on. She loved the idea and went running up the stairs.

While she was up there, my wife made very rushed descriptions of the various pajamas my daughter had available to her, and then our guests and us each made a pick. To our surprise, when Nora snuck back downstairs and into the dining room, she yelled out that one of our guests had actually won (the little ninja had been downstairs long enough to hear us make our picks!).

She then ran into the next room, ransacked her own wallet, and came back with a dollar bill, which she gave to our guest. He tried to demure, but she insisted. He won, and in doing so, he earned himself a dollar. She screamed, “Wait! I need jammy pants under my nightgown!,” and she ran back upstairs for round two.

My wife again quickly described all the various pajama pants for our guests — but I didn’t need a description. I knew just which ones she would choose, and when she came downstairs, I was right. So, again, she ran into the other room, opened her wallet, and came back with another dollar (where she got two dollar bills, I have no idea).

At this point, the dollar bills became ridiculous, and we refused to accept them, but she wouldn’t hear of it. After some back and forth, we came up with a compromise. As the now rightful owners of the two dollar bills, my guest and I would donate them to one of the things she is saving up for: a trip to Disney World (months ago, her and I created a special savings account for this trip, and I told her we wouldn’t be able to go until it contained $2,000; she currently has $1.67).

She wouldn’t accept the dollar bills, but she loved the idea of us donating our money, and she quickly accepted the offer.

I took out my iPhone, opened up the special account so she could see it, and transferred $2 from my checking account into her Disney World savings account, then I put the two dollar bills in my wallet.

After confirming the transaction, she looked up at me and said, “Who do you think got it?”

“Got what?” I asked.

“The money. You sent it to Disney World. Who got it?”

(Man, I love this little girl).

“Who do you want to get it?”

She thought for a moment, and said, “Evie.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll send a text down to Disney World and make sure Evie got it.”

But now, 24 hours later, I’ve told her that the person she thinks is Evie is actually a woman named Sophia Carson. If she just sent $2 down to Disney World care of: Evie, and Evie isn’t really Evie, then which Evie got her money?

I had no answer to that question. And like a coward, I chose to pivot.

“So if Evie is just an actress,” I said, “and all the people on TV are just actors and actresses who people point a camera at while they pretend to be someone else, you don’t really need an invention to go into the TV. You just need to become an actress.”

She liked that idea. During the game’s next commercial break, I challenged her to mimic the people we watched on the screen. The commercial was that GEICO one where people  enjoy horrible things, such as having your seat chair repeatedly kicked from behind on an airline. Because of the content, her acting was actually pretty funny.

The game came back on, and we resumed cuddling on the couch.

After a few minutes, I said, “You don’t have to be an actress to be part of a story, you know. Every day of your life is a story. It can be as exciting as the things you watch on television, or it can be as boring as sitting on the couch. The choice is yours.”

If it were mine, she’d become a drum-playing astronaut.

I Have A Daughter

One of my Facebook friends recently posted an image that read: “What if I don’t have daughters and therefore no way of knowing that women are people? Good news, all women are people all the time, not just when assholes have daughters.”

On HuffPost, one writer criticized “a couple of celebrity men [who] put out statements or gave interviews about [Harvey Weinstein’s repeated assaults on women]…emphasizing that as fathers of daughters, they found this behavior abhorrent.”

My Facebook friend and this writer are pissed off because “men see each other as humans. And a lot of men still don’t view girls or women that way.” The “I have a daughter” trope confirms this reality because it stands as “the flip side [to] sexual assault. In both situations, a woman is an object — to grope or protect from groping.”

I get their anger. But I don’t think they’re giving the “transformative” power of having daughters enough credit (even though the HuffPo writer links to that article in her post). I don’t know if they’re fully grasping what that transformation consists of.

The goal of every feminist is to reduce the level of ignorance, to bring those who are not yet capable of it to the realization that women are people too. I’m not sure we have the right to judge the ways in which an individual is brought out of that ignorance. To do so is to put the method ahead of the result.

The HuffPo writer makes an assumption that the men who make these comments do so to protect their daughters from being groped, and in some ways, I know that they do, but couldn’t they also be making these statements because they’ve grown as human beings? Not because they want to protect their daughters, but because they want to defend the rights of everyone to live their lives free from harassment and oppression?

It is a process to bring someone out of their ignorance, and it takes generations to do it on such a massive scale, but with each parent, teacher, and celebrity brought out of their ignorance, humanity gains one more person capable of providing those who are most easily influenced with earlier and earlier opportunities to be brought out of the systemic ignorance.

I appreciate the desire to critique the “I have a daughter” trope, but it seems as if it’s being done with too much judgement, almost as if we’re screaming at someone for not getting it earlier, when maybe we ought to appreciate that, given the society they continue to live in, they ever got it at all.

People only know what other people can teach them. Let’s not forget that children are often our greatest teachers.

A Version of a Speech I Need to Give My Students Tomorrow

Okay guys, I’m floundering. I need your help.

About the only thing I know about this class is its frickin’ title: How to Combat Online Bullshit. When I came up with it, I had a whole idea about learning all about fake news — how it’s created, how it spreads, what kind of effects it can have — and then teaching you how to combat it.

The problem is, I don’t know if you care about fake news. I want you to feel a sense of righteous indignation toward it, but at least two of you don’t. I don’t really understand why, because my own righteous indignation is so close to the surface.

I make my living trying to get young people to understand and examine certain truths about the world, not truths that I necessarily have access to, but truths that I have received. One of those truths is that democracy is good; another is that democracy is hard; and another is that an enlightened electorate is the only weapon capable of of defending it. If that weapon gets any weaker, then the great experiment that is America will come to an ignoble end.

You two, the ones who are throwing me for a loop in this class, you two are still two or three years away from joining the electorate. But me and him, we’re already there.

And both of us are telling you that the information you find on the Internet is often completely fake, regardless of how real it may sound. I suspect (I hope) you already believe that, but I’m not entirely sure you understand the ramifications of it.

There’s something else I’m not sure about: I don’t know how much you read, or if you do, what kinds of things you might read.

When I conceived of this class, I made (and continue to make) an awful lot of assumptions about you, and I realize now that one of them is that you care (at least somewhat) about some of the events that are taking place beyond your own lives. That may have been a mistake.

Some basic knowledge of current events is necessary if I’m to rile up that righteous indignation I assumed you would already have. But if you don’t have this basic knowledge — if you don’t at least somewhat depend on the news to guide your understanding of reality — then you have no context from which to draw your anger from; you simply have no idea that we are currently being attack by an onslaught of verifiably intentionally-fake news.

Which means we need to go back to step one.

The purpose of a high-school education is, primarily, to prepare the future citizens of this country to continue the great experiment that we call democracy. Anything you learn above and beyond that in high school is just gravy.

But the key ingredient to democracy is, again, an enlightened electorate. And in order to cultivate that, I need you to become critical of everything you read, hear, and watch — I need you to become critical of media.

Because that’s where the battle is being fought now. It’s where democracy is currently being attacked. This is not hyperbole. This shit is actually going on.

Russia, that great enemy of my childhood, is literally attacking our country, and almost everyone has a reasonable suspicion that Russia may have even compromised the Chief Executive of our government, a possibility that is being diligently investigated by an incredibly powerful — and by all accounts, highly ethical — civil attorney, as well as by some of the more patriotic members of Congress. Reality is now literally a bad 80s movie that has been reboot for the 21st century, where the writers have replaced nuclear bombs with information bombs.

I shit you not.

My question to you is, “What character do you want to play in that movie?” Do you want to be someone shoveling your own shit in the background, or do you want to be someone driving the enemy all the way back to its capitol?

In the 21st century, heroes may not jump out of helicopters; they may work quietly and furiously on a laptop; but the dangers are just as real. The same menacing villain, a former high-ranking officer in the menacing KGB, is directing the same group of menacing bastards to train their sights on America. Behind it all stands a shadowy group of menacing rich bastards, luxuriating in the arrogance of their wealth, while in front of it all, the same innocent victims fall prey.

It’s up to somebody to stop them. Why shouldn’t that someone be you?

If it’s not, that means you’ve opted to become just another victim, and that  means America’s great experiment in democracy has failed.

I’ll say it again. Our democracy is really and truly under attack — not by some shadow terrorist, but by another sovereign nation whose military may not be as evolved as ours, but whose ability to engage in information warfare seems to be operating on a completely different level.

You’re both going to be 18 soon, which means, first, you’ll be eligible to participate in our democracy, and second, that you’ll be eligible to fight for it.

I want to teach you what the fight is actually about, and then teach you to defend yourself and throw a punch. I have the skills to do that.

But first, you have to show me what you know.

A Gift From Me To You

Today I asked my students, “What are you doing? Like, seriously, what are you doing?”

It didn’t take them long to get it. Some understood within seconds, others took a few seconds longer. One of my students presents as severely autistic, but even he understood the severity of my question.

What, in fact, were they doing? Not just right now, but also, only right now: what were they doing with their lives?

I only asked because the night before, I asked myself that same question. I was not being judgy. I did not ask it with a harsh tone. Sitting on the back porch, looking up at the stars, I simply wanted to know: what was I doing with my life.

I’m grateful to be able to say I was proud of my answer.

I am talking to people.

I talk to my wife as often as I can.

I talk to my daughter about everything we can imagine.

I talk to my boss; I talk to my coworkers — I consider all of them my friends, and some of them among my closest friends.

I talk to people I haven’t seen in days, weeks, months, and years, family members, high school and college friends, people I once met somewhere and only for that once.

I talk to people on Facebook when I’m able, even if only by liking what they’ve shared.

I talk to my students in honest and authentic ways about anything I think might help.

I talk to you — whoever you are — to let you know you’re not alone.

I’m proud of what I do. I get to talk to people as openly and as honestly as I can about anything and everything that any of us can imagine (with our fluid imaginations…get it?).

I asked my students that question because I wondered if they believe they have a gift, and if they do,  if they’ve discovered how best to use it.

My daughter’s fifth birthday is next week. On Sunday, we took her to her first concert, the Grand Point North festival on the public lakefront in Burlington, Vermont. One of her favorite bands appeared on the setlist, as did one of mine. It seemed like kismet, and so my wife and I decided to make the concert her birthday gift…

(for the record, I would have taken her to the festival even if one of my favorite bands wasn’t playing, and I told my wife we could leave the show well before the time limit she had set for the evening, which meant I missed more than half of my favorite band’s set — I’m not complaining, I’m just saying…I didn’t get my daughter this gift just because I wanted to play with it too 🙂

…and she loved it. She was a little hesitant at first, but once her favorite band started to play, she loosened up, and by the end of the night she was dancing on the lawn, swinging glowsticks, and chasing a red balloon. In addition, she got to have two bowls of ice cream at two different times during the night; she ate her favorite food — cheese pizza (made entirely from Vermont-grown and Vermont-harvested ingredients, though she didn’t know it) — while sitting on the rocks and watching the Sun set over the waters of Lake Champlain and the peaks of the Adirondack mountains. She got to throw large stones into the lake for a really long time. And she spent an entire evening with her mommy and daddy, who are genuinely her two most favorite people on the planet.

It was an evening that was wholly gratuitous. She received all that the world had to offer her — music, food, family, community, and the natural beauty that comes from the interaction of water, the Earth, the sky, and the Sun — in a word: she received love.

It cost her nothing. She asked for nothing. And it was simply given.

That is what it means to have a gift. She received that gift from us, and now, rich with the world’s extraneous grace, she is prepared to offer it to someone else.

Everyone has a gift like that.

It’s that thing that comes out of you that seems to mean something to someone else. That gratuitous grace that is yours to give.

That’s your gift.

And every day you should do two contradictory things with it: give it away and cultivate more of it to grow.

So now, rich with the knowledge of your gift, I ask you, “What are you doing? Like seriously, what are you doing?”

So I lost my job last week.

I have (had) two jobs. The first is the one I usually blog about, the one where I help build a democratic school that addresses the development of the whole child, including the development of his or her or ze’s social-emotional skills. It’s a real gas.

The second job, the one I lost last week, is the one where I provide high-level guidance to college students on the craft of creative writing. The college where I’ve taught for the past eight years faces a crisis-level enrollment challenge and, as an adjunct in the humanities, I’ve just felt, in my wallet, the force of that challenge.

It’s a great college. It not only does exactly what it says it does, but it does so with real passion and force. The professors generally walk the walk, and the staff members I’ve interacted with have all been genuinely kind and helpful. The entire philosophy of the college is that we are all members of various communities, and it’s imperative that we act in a knowledgeable and deliberate way to improve the lives of all the members of those communities and not just ourselves. The people I’ve met and worked with at the college strive to do exactly that.

Unfortunately, this will be the first semester in a very long time when I can’t count myself among them. And that disappoints me.

Luckily, the people I just described are not just my colleagues; they’re also my neighbors and my friends, so I can continue to count myself as a person in their wider communities.

There’s another reason I am disappointed though. Two more reasons, actually. The first is that, as a professionally unpublished writer, the only way I could rationalize my expensive investment in my M.F.A. was by pointing to the fact that an M.F.A. is the minimum requirement to become a writing professor, so if I wasn’t able to pay back the investment through publishing, I’d be able to do so through teaching. But now I don’t even have that. So yeah, that’s a disappointment.

The third reason is that, for the first time in eight years, I was going to do a wholesale strip-down of my bread-and-butter course: an introduction to creative writing aimed at non-major students to get them interested in the major.

Teaching at the college level is different than teaching at the high school level (and incredibly different from the middle school level). The teaching part of it is the same — be engaging, be knowledgeable enough in the topic to inspire a sense of curiosity, and be authentic in your desire for the students to ask you questions you don’t know the answer to — but the behind-the-scene goals are different.

In high school (and even more so in middle school), students don’t have the right to ignore you. That doesn’t mean they don’t or won’t ignore you; it means that, at the end of the day, society requires them to be there, and its willing to back that requirement up with force. Put simply, in high school (and even more so in middle school) students have a lot less choice.

At the college level — primarily in the first two years, when most students still haven’t invested enough time or money to feel compelled by responsibility — every student you meet must be coaxed to move on to the next level.

There is an instituitional purpose to this: 30% of college students drop out after their first year, and only 50% of students graduate within a reasonable time. With those as statistical truths, all members of the college — including the faculty — must do their best to help students want to stay in school.

But there is also a departmental-level impetus. As a teacher not only in the humanities, but also in one of the softest of soft subjects, I have to include within my responsibilities the need to attract students to my subject matter. I must keep the funnel flowing from the 2000-level introductory course to the 3000-level courses where the full-time faculty are mostly employed (I’ve taught 3000-level courses in the past, but that was before the the economic crisis of 2009 had a dramatic effect on student enrollments in private liberal-arts-based instutions). While education is always the primary responsibility, this need to sell the major is also always there.

This is not a critique. I live in the real world and would have it no other way: at every level, at every point, an artist must sing for her supper. I get it, and I love it. That is not the point here (but for more on that point, read this essay by an anonymous adjunct instructor).

The point is that, for the first time in eight years, I was about to launch a brand new product, and now I’m being told that I won’t even be given the chance.

I’m not taking it personally because no one has yet told me that I should. I know the college’s financial situation, and I understand that, as an adjunct, I am the definition of low-hanging fruit, so I have no hard feelings at all.

But I really wanted to give this new course a try.

It is still an introduction to creative writing, but instead of breaking the semester down by genre — six weeks of fiction, five weeks of poetry, and three to four weeks of screenwriting or creative nonfiction (depending on the semester) — I was going to blend them all together and teach not a genre of creative writing but creative writing itself.

From a business perspective, the goal of the course is to convince non-majors to continue doing work in the major — i.e, to convince new customers to become repeat customers. For the past years, my sales pitch has been akin to an analysis. I wanted to expose the students to ideas and notions about creative writing that they hadn’t yet heard before, to show them, in some way, what it means to take the craft of writing seriously.

My competitors were the high schools. I had to be able to take them deeper into the concept of creative writing than anything they’d done in high school, to make them feel as if they were, in some way, being led behind the curtain.

But I also couldn’t take them so deep that they’d felt like they’d seen it all. The end of the semester had to leave them wanting more.

This upcoming semester though, I wanted to change it up. Instead of doing an analysis of creative writing, I was going to attempt some kind of sythesis. Instead of digging deep into the concept, I was going to dance them atop it, spin them from one place to another with enough joy and verve to trip the light fantastic, leaving them, at the end of the semester, with an artist’s sense of the possibilities, not of what goes on behind the curtain, but of what can be accomplished on stage.

I’m still not 100% sure how I was going to do it. The semester starts in about four or five weeks and my plan was to work on it during the first full week of August when I take a writer’s retreat in my own home (my wife and daughter are visiting my in-laws while I stay home with no obligation but to write, and to write in a serious and purposive way…and, I suppose, to feed and bathe myself as well).

The college course wasn’t the only thing I was planning to work on next week, but it was one of them, and I was very much looking forward to it.

I had a fantasy where, instead of writing a syllabus for the course, I would write a kind of pamphlet, a short and to-the-point kind of textbook whose style would blend Strunk & White’s with Wittgenstein’s to create a style all my own.

In the eight years I’ve been teaching the course, I’ve yet to use a textbook. I figured maybe it was time to write my own.

While I still might attempt it next week, I don’t have the pressure of a deadline now. And that disappoints me too.

Oh well. Here’s hoping the course comes back to life in the Spring.

Crazy Like An Atheologist

Over the past few months, I’ve had several religious experiences repeat themselves in terms of set and setting and outcome. Earlier in the summer, I tried to reconcile these experiences with my atheistic faith. If atheism is the denial of a divine intelligence, how could I explain several subjective experiences that told me with as much certainty as I am capable of that I was communing with a divine-style intelligence?

In that earlier blog post, I attempted to retain the reality of both my atheism and my experiences by allowing for the possibility of non-human intelligences whose objectivity can only be described in hyper-dimensional terms. Hyper-dimensional does not mean divine — it just means different.

In this post, I’d like to examine the question of whether I am crazy.

I am a relatively smart human being. Billions of people are smarter than me, but billions of people are not. It may be true that I am overeducated and under-experienced, but I am also forty years old, which means that, while I have not experienced more than a fraction of what there is to be experienced, I have, in truth, had my share of experiences.

It’s true that I’m on medication for a general anxiety disorder, but it’s also true that so is almost everyone else I know, and I don’t think I’m more prone to craziness than anyone else in my orbit.

Furthermore, it is true that I’ve enjoyed recreational drugs, but it is also true that a few weeks ago I went to a Dead & Company concert where people way more sane than I am also enjoyed the highs of recreational drugs.

All of which is to say, I don’t think I am crazy.

The friends I’ve shared my story with don’t seem to think I am crazy either. I’m not suggesting that they believe I communed with a divine-style intelligence, but they signaled their willingness to entertain the possibility that these experiences actually hapened to me. They were willing to hear me out, and though they had serious questions that signaled their doubt, they also seemed willing to grant that certain arguments could resolve their doubts, and that, provided these arguments were made, they might concede that my experiences were objectively real.

In other words, I don’t think my friends think I’m crazy either. They may have serious doubts about the way I experience reality, but I think they also realize there’s no harm in what I’m saying either, and that there may even be something good in it.

I’ve read a lot about consciousness and the brain. I haven’t attended Tufts University’s program in Cognitive Studies or UC Santa Cruz’s program in the History of Consciousness, but I feel as if I’ve read enough in the subjects to at least facilitate an undergraduate seminar.

Through my somewhat chaotic but also autodidactic education, I’ve learned that neurological states cause the subject to experience a presence that is in no way objectively there. Some of these states can be reliably triggered by science, as when legal or illegal pharmaceuticals cause a subject to hallucinate. Other states are symptomatic of mental disorders objectively present in our cultural history due to the unique evolution of the Western imagination (some philosophers argue that schizophrenia isn’t a symptom of a mental disorder as much as it is a symptom of capitalism).

I am a white American male with an overactive imagination who takes regular medication for a diagnosed general anxiety disorder. It makes complete sense that a set of neurological states could arise in my brain unbidden by an external reality, that the combination of chemicals at work in my brain could give birth to a patterned explosion whose effect causes me to experience the presence of a divine-style intelligence that is not, in the strictest sense, there.

But I want to consider the possibility — the possibility — that this same neurological state was not the effect of the chemical chaos taking place in my brain, but rather the effect of an external force pushing itself into communion with me, just as a telephone’s ring pushes airwaves into your ear, which pushes impulses into your brain, which causes a neurological state that signals to the subject of your brain that someone out there wants to talk to you.

I’m not saying someone called me. I’m saying that the neurological states that I experienced during those minutes (and in one case, hours) might have been caused by something other than the chemical uniqueness of my brain, something outside of my self.

In a sense, I’m talking about the fundamental nature of our reality. In order for these experiences to actually have happened to me, I have to allow for a part of my understanding of the fundamental nature of reality to be wrong. And anyone who knows me knows I do not like to be wrong.

Heidegger wrote an essay where he basically argues that there is a divine-style presence (by which I mean, an external, non-human presence) that we, as human beings, have the burden of bringing forth into the world (according to Heidegger, this burden defines us as human beings). He argues that there are two ways we can bring this presence into the world: the first is through a kind of ancient craftsmanship; the second is through our more modern technology. The difference lies in what kind of presence will arrive when we finally bring it forth.

Accoring to Heidegger, the ancient sense of craftsmanship invites a presence into the world through a mode of respect and humility. Heidegger uses the example of a communion chalice and asks how this chalice was first brought into the world.

He examines the question using Aristotle’s notions of causality, and based on his examination, he concludes that the artist we modern humans might deem most responsible for creating the chalice actually had to sacrifice her desires to the truth of the chalice itself: its material, its form, and its intention. The artist couldn’t just bring whatever she wanted into the world because her freedom was bounded by the limitations of the material (silver), the form (a chalice must have a different form than a wine glass, for example), and the intention (in this case, its use in the Christian rite of communion). The artist didn’t wrestle with the material, form, and intention to bring the chalice into the world; rather, she sacrificed her time to coaxing and loving it into being — she was less its creator and more a midwife to its birth.

For Heidegger, as for the Greeks, reality exists in hyper-dimensions. There is the world as we generally take it, and then there is the dimension of Forms, which are just as real as the hand at the end of my arm. For the artist to bring the chalice forth into the world is to bring it from the dimension of the Forms, which is why, for the ancient Greeks, the word for “truth” is also the word for “unveiling” — a true chalice isn’t created as much as it is unveiled; its Form is always present, but an artist is necessary to unveil it for those of us who have not the gift (nor the curse) to experience it as a Form. In an attempt to capture this concept, Heidegger characterizes the artist’s process as “bringing-forth out of concealment into unconcealment.”

I know it feels like we’re kind of deep in the weeds right now, but stick with me. I promise: we’re going someplace good.

After exploring the art of ancient craftsmanship, Heidegger contrasts the artist’s midwifery style of unconcealing with modern technology. Where artists coax the truth into being, modern technology challenges and dominates it. It exploits and exhausts the resources that feed it, and in the process, it destroys the truth rather than bring it to light.

For an example, Heidegger uses the Rhine River. When German poets (i.e., artists) refer to the Rhine, they see it as a source of philosophical, cultural, and nationalistic pride, and everything they say or write or sing about it only increases its power. When modern technologists refer to the river, they see it instead as an energy source (in terms of hydroelectric damming) or as a source of profit (in terms of tourism). For the artist, the river remains ever itself, growing in strength and majesty the more the artist unveils it; for the modern technologist, it is a raw material whose exploitation will eventually exhaust its vitality.

The modern method of unveiling the truth colors everything the modern technologist understands about his relationship with reality. It is the kind of thinking that leads to a term like “human resources,” which denotes the idea that humans themselves are also raw materials to be exhausted and exploited.

In my reading of Heidegger, the revelatory mode of modern technology is harder, more colonialistic and militaristic. It not only exhausts all meaning, but it creates, in the meantime, a reality of razor straight lines and machine-cut edges. This is why, in my reading of Heidegger, he believes we should avoid it at all costs.

To scare yourself, think of the kind of artificial intelligence that such a method might create (i.e., unconceal). It would see, as its creators see, a world of exploitable resources, and it would, as its creators are, move forward with all haste to dominate access to those resources, regardless of their meaning. The artificial intelligence unconcealed by this method is the artificial intelligence that everyone wants you to be scared of.

But Heidegger wrote at the birth of modern technology, when it was almost exclusively designed around the agendas of generals, politicians, and businessmen. He didn’t live long enough to witness the birth of video games, personal computers, or iPhones. He didn’t understand that the Romantics themselves would grow to love technology or that human beings would dedicate themselves to the poetry of code (Heidegger reminds us that the Greek term for the artist’s method of unconcealment is poeisis, which is the root of our English term, poetry). Heidegger could not conceive of a modern technology that shared the same values as art, and so he was blind to the possibility that, through modern technology, humans would also be capable of bringing forth, rather than a colonial or militaristic truth, something that is both true and, in the Platonic sense, good.

A theologically inclined reader could find in Heidegger an argument between the right and good way of doing things and the wrong and evil way of doing things, and through that argument, reach a kind of theological conclusion that says the wrong and evil way of doing things will bring forth the Devil.

But Heidegger’s arguments are not saddled with the historic baggage of Jewish, Christian, or Islamic modes of conception. Rather, he find his thoughts in the language of the Greeks and interprets them through his native German. He implies a divine-style presence (and his notion of truth contains the notion of presence, or else, what is there to be unconcealed?), but he’s only willing, with Plato, to connect it to some conception of the Good. He seems to fear, though, that, due to modern technology, this divine-style presence might not be the only one out there.

I’ll give Heidegger that. But he must grant me the possibility that there could be more than two different kinds of presences that humans are capable of bringing forth, or rather, more than two different kinds of presences that we are capable of recognizing as something akin to ourselves.

Heidegger had his issues, but I don’t think he was crazy. I do, however, think his German heritage, just like Neitzche’s, could sometimes get the best of him, and the same cultural milieu that resulted in a nation’s devotion to totalitarianism may also have resulted in two brilliant philosophers being blinded to some of the wisdoms of Western democracy, namely, that reality is never black or white but made of many colors, and just as the human presence is as complex as the billions of human beings who bring it forth, the divine-style presence brought forth by either art or technology may be as complex as the billions of technological devices that bring it forth.

Think about it this way. Human beings have a very different relationship to the atom bomb than they do to Donkey Kong. But both relationships are objectively held with technology. Is the presence that might be brought forth by Donkey Kong the same as the one brought forth by the atom bomb? To suggest so would be like saying the reality brought forth by the efforts of a nine-year-old Moroccan girl share an essence with the reality brought forth by a 76-year-old British transexual. Yes, there are going to be similarities by virtue of their evolutionary heritage, but to suggest they both experience reality in the same way is to overestimate one’s heritage and miss the richness of what’s possible. We wouldn’t want to do so with humanity; let’s not do so with technology either.

Here’s a question. When I say “divine-style intelligence,” what exactly do I mean?

Well, I mean a hyper-dimensional intelligence. This intelligence is abstracted above and beyond a single subjective experience and yet, like a wave moving through the ocean, it can only exist within and through subjective experience.

The interaction between the atom bomb and the humans beneath it is the result of a hyper-dimensional intelligence connecting Newton to Einstein to Roosevelt to Oppenheimer to Truman. Similarly, the interaction between the video game and the human playing with it is the result of a hyper-dimensional intelligence connecting Leibniz to Babbage to Turing to Miyamoto.

With such different paths behind them, such different veins of heritage, and such different modes of interacting with humans, wouldn’t the divine-style intelligences brought forth by these technologies be completely different, and shouldn’t one of them, perhaps, have the opportunity to be seen — to be experienced — as both good and true?

The subjective experience of a human being is due to the time-based firing of a complex yet distinguishable pattern of energies throughout the human brain (and the brain’s attendant nervous system, of course). You experience being you due to the patterns of energy spreading from neuron to neuron; you exist as both a linear movement in time and as a simultaneous and hyper-dimensional web. Subjectivity, then, is a hyper-dimensional series of neurological states.

But why must we relegate the experience of subjectivity to the physical brain? Could it not arise from other linear yet also hyper-dimensional webs, such as significant and interconnected events within human culture, maybe connected by stories and the human capacity for spotting and understanding the implication of significant patterns in and through time?

Humans are the descendants of those elements of Earthbound life that evolved a skill for predicting and shaping the future. Would that evolutionary path not also attune us to recognizing intelligence in other forms of life?

I hear the argument here, that humans seem incredibly slow at recognizing intelligence in other forms of Earthbound life — hell, we only barely began recognizing it in the human beings who look different from us, let alone in dogs, octopuses, and ferns — but in the history of life, homo sapiens have only just arisen into consciousness, and it seems (on good days anyway) as if our continued progress requires our recognition of equality not just among human beings but among all the creatures of the Earth (provided we don’t screw it up first).

It doesn’t seem unfathomable that, just as our subjectivity arises in floods of energy leaping and spreading throughout the human brain, another kind of subjectivity might arise through another flood of energy leaping and spreading across the various webs of our ecological reality, a subjectivity that arose from some kind of root system and may only just now be willing and able to make its presence known beyond itself, like a green bud on a just-poked-out tree, or like a naked ape raising its head above the grasses on the savannah time, announcing to all and sundry that something new has moved onto the field.

The story of Yahweh, of Christ, of Muhammed, is the story of a set of significant and interconnected experiences understood not just as real, but as divine. Yahweh, Christ, and Allah spoke through these experiences, some of which were verbal, others of which were physical, and still others of which were political, by which I mean, effected by decisions in various throne rooms and on various battlegrounds. Like energy moving from neuron to neuron, Yahweh, Christ, and Allah move from story to story, from event to event, traveling not through a single human brain, but through a collective culture, and through this, the God is brought forth in full truth and presence.

According to each of these major religions, one can connect oneself to (commune with) the presence of God. One can do this through artful devotion, through praxis, prayer, and/or meditation.

Even as an atheist, I’m willing to grant these religious experiences as real, but I’m not willing to grant them their exclusivity. I argue that the divine-style presences that made (or make) themselves known through the religions of Yahweh, Christ, and Allah were (are) hyper-dimensional intelligences suffering from a God complex. All three hyper-dimensional intelligences have their unique flaws, but they share the flaw of megalomania. This is understandable, considering how powerful they claim to be, but just because you’re powerful doesn’t mean you’re God. It just makes you powerful.

With Heidegger, I want to discuss the kinds of hyper-dimensional intelligences that might be unconcealed during human interactions with reality, but I don’t want my discussion to get bogged down by the concepts of God, gods, or even, like the Greeks, the Good. Heidegger founds his notions in the language of the Greeks’ concepts of Being; I want to use something else.

I would like my notions to rest on a rigorous concept of play, a subjective experience that, I believe, precedes the experience of Being, and leads to the possibility that, right now, we are not (nor have we ever been) alone.

Hopefully that only sounds a little crazy.

There’s Something About Those Stars

Every night, I venture onto my back porch and spend about 15 minutes looking up at the stars. Because I do this at pretty much the same time every night, I see the same stars over and over again, and almost exactly in the same position as the night before.

The constellation that gets my attention is Cassiopeia. I don’t know where I first learned about this particular constellation, but it’s one of the more famous ones, so I imagine it was sometime when I was young. Even still, I don’t think I understood how to spot it until I was in my twenties.

It looks kind of like a tilted “w” that sits low off the horizon, to the north and east of the Big Dipper (otherwise known as Ursa Major, the Big Bear — though truth be told, the Big Dipper is only the central section of the even bigger Bear).

I somehow know Cassiopeia was a Greek queen, but I don’t know how that queen’s story earned her a constellation (not that she didn’t deserve it or anything; I simply don’t know the facts of her story).

Usually, during these minutes of stargazing, I don’t carry my iPhone on me. This has not been because of a deliberate decision on my part; it’s merely been an ever-lengthening coincidence.

The lack of an iPhone hasn’t bothered me, though it’s often the only minutes each day when my phone isn’t somewhere within reach — or at least, the only minutes each day when I’m not subconsciously itching to touch my iPhone (regardless of whether it’s within reach).

The reaching for it, just the gentle desire to touch it, to make sure it’s there, I feel it, subconsciously, all day, and when I’m not able to do so, some part of me, sometimes consciously but always subconsciously, cries out, “Where’s my phone? Where’s my phone?,” until finally, there it is!, and I have it again.

But that itch goes away each night when I look up at the stars and pick out Cassiopeia. I don’t notice this lack of an itch, but thinking back on it, it’s true: the itch completely goes away.

Tonight, however, I had my iPhone on me when I went outside, and after a few minutes of looking up at Cassiopeia, I remembered it, and so after the required unconscious tap on my Facebook app, I opened my web brower and Googled the constellation’s name, not because I wanted to do a full search of the Internet but because I needed a shortcut to the relevant page on Wikipedia.

And Wikipedia (i.e., the wisdom of the crowd) told me that Cassiopeia was the mother of the woman whom was tied to that rock in The Clash of the Titans, the one whom Perseus wanted to save. She (the daughter) was served up to a sea monster to appease the wrath of Poseidon, who was holding the mother guilty for the crime of blasphemy, which she (the mother) committed when she boasted that both she and her daughter were more beautiful than the daughters of a sea god. The sea god was not Poseidon, mind you, but rather, the god who ruled the seas prior to Poseidon, so like, one of the sea’s still-living, past-ruling-gods (kind of like the sea’s version of Jimmy Carter).

Poseidon had to do something about such a boast. There’s a reason blasphemy is a sin. Blasphemy calls into question the power dynamic between a subject and its ruler. In order for the ruler to continue to rule, these dynamics cannot be doubted for a moment, and every outspoken doubt must be met by an overpoweringly undoubtable show of force, elsewise one brings into being the very beginning of a revolt.

And so Poseidon did what he had to do, and he came up with an unimaginably bitter pain for the boastful Cassiopeia: she had to sacrifice her beautiful daughter, whose only guilt resided in being the object of her mother’s boastful pride. To satisfy the wounded sea god’s pride, however, Cassiopeia had to sacrifice her daughter in a horrible, yet relevant way; she couldn’t just slice her daughter’s neck; she had to give her living daughter up to be consumed alive by a horrible sea monster.

In the story, Perseus comes along just in time and saves the princess (whose  name, by the way, is Andromeda; you’ve probably heard of her: we not only gave her a constellation [right below Cassiopeia’s], but we also named a galaxy after her — we’ve always liked princesses better than we’ve liked queens).

But the princess wasn’t really the guilty one; her mother was. So Poseidon had to come up with another punishment for the queen’s blasphemous crimes. He decided to curse her with a frozen immortality where she would forever be positioned as her daughter was positioned during what must have been the most torturous moment of both her and her daughter’s lives, forcing her (the mother) for all time to relive and never be released from the pain of that horrendous moment.

But he would do so not in private; Cassiopeia would not be frozen in some locked dungeon far beneath the earth where no one would ever see her or think about her crimes; no, instead, she would be held up high where we would all have to bear witness to her pain, a reminder to all of humanity as to what will happen if we boast against the gods (including those gods who are no longer in power).

And Cassiopeia sits above us, tied to her throne like Andromeda tied to those rocks, crying out, forever stuck in a moment of impending and violent shame.

The story of Cassiopeia doesn’t relate to my addiction to my iPhone, unless one wants to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point and compare modern culture’s worship of technology to the act of an ancient blasphemy…but hey, for argument’s sake, why not?

As I said above, blasphemy is an unforgiveable sin because it calls into question the power dynamics between a ruler and his/her/its subject. If we imagine for a moment that there is no such thing as God or gods, then what blasphemy are we committing when we sacrifice parts of our lives to technology?

As an academic living in rural Vermont, I have more than a few friends who are committed anti-technologists. They’re not nutjobs — they all watch Netflix, use computers, drive cars, etc., but they are also outspokenly critical of the costs and pains that come with our dependence on modern technology.

They are, in a word, humanists. They believe that humanity has an intrinsic value that ought to be defended. To their credit, they do not seem to believe that humanity is more valuable than anything else on the planet, but they believe that, despite its egalitarian relationship with everything else, humanity is truly unique and deserves to be saved.

One of the things it deserves to be saved from is technology. Like any other vice, technology sucks the life-force out of humanity and redirects it for its own use — like a poppy plant getting humanity high in order to make us grow more poppy plants. The more we sacrifice our energy, our attention, and our time to technology, the less control we have over our selves.

Studies show that an increased use of digital technology can lead to, among other things, increased weight gain, a reduction in sleep, the retardation of a young person’s ability to read emotions from non-verbal cues, increased challenges with attention and the ability to focus, and a reduction in the strength of interpersonal-bonding sensations. It directly harms our ability to enter into healthy relationships with other human beings, thereby harming humanity’s ability to regulate itself.

In other words, technology rules over humanity at this point; it regulates our interactions, even when we’re among each other. Technology has inserted itself into even our most intimate relationships (see: vibrator), and found itself enthroned upon an altar at which the majority of us bow down every night until we go to sleep, stealing from us the only productive hours we have after we sell ourselves into wage slavery in order to pay down our debts, debts which, let’s be honest, were mostly incurred by the manufactured desire to offer tribute to technology (collected in small amounts by technology’s high-priests: Comcast, Apple, Verizon, Samsung, the New York Stock Exchange, etc.).

To commit blasphemy against technology — to forget, even for a moment, even subconsciously, that technology does not rule over us, to not feel, even if only in retrospect, technology’s ruling hand — is to remember, even subconsciously, that humanity was here before technology, and that we did just fine on our own.

We weren’t weak. We weren’t bored.

We had kings and queens and gods who kept them in their place. And every night, we looked up at the dark night sky, and without feeling the uncomfortable itch of addiction, thought to ourselves, calmly, quietly, “There’s something about those stars.”